Sundance Update: Saturday, Feb. 2 | Buzz Blog

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Sundance Update: Saturday, Feb. 2

Paradise Hills, The Death of Dick Long, Queen of Hearts, Imaginary Order and more

Posted By and on February 2, 2019, 1:26 PM

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click to enlarge Emma Roberts and Eiza González in Paradise Hills - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Emma Roberts and Eiza González in Paradise Hills
Paradise Hills (NEXT) **
Allegorical science-fiction is hard enough to pull off without profound confusion as to what you’re being allegorical about. Emma Roberts plays Uma, a young woman involuntarily committed by her mother to an idyllic “center for emotional healing” where she and other young women are trained to be what other people want them to be. That’s sort of the extent of it for most of the running time, as Uma and her fellow “students”—including Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald and Eiza González—resist the various treatments implemented by Paradise Hills’ headmistress (a gleefully sinister Milla Jovovich). Director Alice Waddington designs an imaginative physical production for this feminist mash-up of The Prisoner and A Clockwork Orange—one procedure involves having the women strapped to a carousel horse—but doesn’t offer much variation on her theme. Then, out of nowhere, the third act finds her and her co-screenwriters heading off into a completely different direction about the purpose of Paradise Hills. In some ways, it’s a more interesting direction, but it also makes it hard to understand exactly who the villains are in this story. The generous way to describe it would be “intersectional,” although that presumes that the multiple thematic notions are informing one another, rather than slamming into one another. (Scott Renshaw)

Velvet Buzzsaw (Premieres) **1/2
Writer/director Dan Gilroy takes aim and empties his magazine at the barrel of fish that is the high-end art world in a supernatural thriller that’s simultaneously silly, obvious and kind of entertaining. The narrative surrounds the death of a reclusive man, and the discovery in his apartment of a huge stockpile of paintings that he has expressly indicated he never wants to be seen. That doesn’t stop a whole bunch of people from trying to profit from that work—including a gallery owner (Rene Russo), her ambitious would-be protégé (Zawe Ashton) and an influential critic (Jake Gyllenhaal)—and potentially face a creepy comeuppance. It’s basically a Twilight Zone variation on the Sundance 2018 “art shouldn’t be big business” documentary The Price of Everything, taking broad shots at artsy-fartsy folks who do things like look at bags of garbage in the middle of an artist’s loft and mistake it for a profound new creation. Gilroy is way too obvious in his contempt for his characters—especially Gyllenhaal’s critic, who does things like mock the color of the coffin at a funeral—but the performances are often a hoot, and the movie gets engagingly nuts as characters are picked off by homicidal artworks. “Satire” might be too generous a descriptor, but you gotta chuckle at a movie where a critic earnestly pronounces, “I further the realm!” (SR)

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Give Me Liberty (NEXT) ***1/2
For an hour, I thought this the film of the festival. It covers a day in the life of Viktor, a Russian immigrant driving for a van service that shuttles handicapped people door-to-door around Milwaukee. Today, his ailing grandfather nearly burns down his kitchen preparing for a funeral with an extended circle of other Russian emigres. Their van doesn’t show, so Viktor has to bail them out like a good Russian boy. His planned wheelchair clients require an empty van for entry and exit. Protest marches block his regular route through black neighborhoods, his boss barks about being behind schedule, the Russians fret about lateness, everybody wanders around a special-needs center. In short, this is a rambunctious comedy about life’s most hectic shit day. The virtuoso juggling of loud agendas is balanced with affecting scenes of handicapped actors performing without condescension. But after a wake, the near-constant action breaks, and the balloon pops. Director Kirill Mikhanovsky intermittently reverts to form for the second hour, but the magic is gone. We end at an “Our Streets” protest that’s confusingly choreographed, unconvincingly resolved and feels inorganic compared to the sudden turn in the similarly-structured Do The Right Thing. But saying “it’s not as good as Do The Right Thing” should tell you how good it is. (Victor Morton)

The Death of Dick Long (NEXT) ***1/2
Spoiler alert: Dick Long dies in The Death of Dick Long, and the manner of his death is a mystery that only gradually unfolds in this dark comedy from director Daniel Scheinert (one half of The Daniels behind 2017’s Swiss Army Man) and first-time screenwriter Billy Chew. After a night of particularly hard partying, garage bandmates Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) leave Dick outside an emergency room, and their attempt to cover up their involvement in his death spirals into bleak farce. The comedic material is solid, mostly built on the incompetence of the two buddies in the face of their impending discovery (though there is also one weird killer visual gag based on a unique solution to a groundskeeping challenge). But for all the weirdness, there’s also a surprising emotional undercurrent as Zeke faces deceiving his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb). Like other wild high-concept Sundance comedies including Sleeping Dogs Lie and Humpday—and even Swiss Army Man, for that matter—The Death of Dick Long uses its absurd premise to poke at how people respond to startling revelations about themselves, or about the people they love. And while it might never achieve quite the insight in the best of those other examples, it’s still the kind of movie where telling you what it’s about doesn’t really tell you what it’s about. (SR)

Imaginary Order (U.S. Dramatic) *1/2
A scene late in Imaginary Order features a teenage boy and a married middle-aged woman sitting in a car. The woman has already screwed the boy’s father, and had lesser intimate contact with his mother. The boy had earlier tried to forcefully kiss the woman, and is now expressing interest in her 12-ish daughter, who knows none of this backstory. In this conversation, the woman wants the boy to stay away and the boy agrees—on condition that the mom take his virginity. When she acts appalled, he starts rubbing one out. Imaginary Order imagines it’s a comedy, so if that description sounds funny to you, here’s your film [starts backing off warily]. It goes without saying that bad taste can be funny, including bad taste in sex comedies. But this one is paced and directed like thirtysomething-ish late-80s dramedy, and many scenes in this rich, suburban environment of comfortable concentration camps are played in earnest—family woes, failure to communicate, generation gaps and the rest of the Ordinary People litany. Except all of writer-director Debra Eisenstadt’s characters—basically two families—are sociopaths, and neither they nor their auteur realize this. I didn’t laugh once. (VM)

Queen of Hearts (World Dramatic) ****
A critical distinction becomes necessary here: I didn’t hate Imaginary Order because it had mucho immoral sex. Queen of Hearts is centered on an incestuous relationship and is far more explicit, but tone is everything; where the American movie is crass and twee, the Danish one is serious and morally demanding. In a great central performance, Trine Dyrholm plays a lawyer who represents rape and family-abuse victims, and is the second wife of a doctor (Magnus Krepper) who has a delinquent son (Gustav Lindh) by his first marriage. The slide into incest isn’t exactly psychologically persuasive—how could it be?—but the dynamics of this very modern Scandinavian family precisely lay out the tracks. And once it happens, every twist and turn grabs your breath as the stakes and ironies build; one late stepmother speech should be put in the dictionary under “projection.” Formally, the chilly tone matches the luxe Scandinavian home decor, and one classic 1980s hit (not by Juice Newton, as the title might suggest) gets used in a strange and more significant way than it first seemed scene. Numerous other memorable shots include a car leaving the house, which I was praying would be the last, but much more cruelty is to come. The film’s first scene plays as the leave-taking scene of a standard adultery drama. When it gets replayed, it’s something far worse. (VM)

Corporate Animals (Midnight) **1/2
There’s nothing exactly wrong with the kind of movie Corporate Animals is; it’s just not nearly as interesting as the kind of movie it seemed poised to be. In the New Mexico desert, a group of employees goes on a team-building trip into a cave system, and find themselves trapped when their only exit blocked after an earthquake. The scenario is played for laughs, by the way, with Demi Moore as the company’s universally-loathed CEO and a solid cast of supporting characters—including Nasim Pedrad, Jessica Williams, Isiah Whitlock Jr.—gradually going feral as they run out of supplies and hope of rescue. Somewhere in there is a ruthless pitch-black comedy about the disposable pieces of a late-capitalist American company, but director Patrick Brice (the 2015 Sundance comedy The Overnight), working from a script by Sam Bain, is content to leave a lot of the laughs in the realm of silliness rather than savagery. Enough of the gags land—the best ones involving an injured intern played by Calum Worth hallucinating—that it’s an amusing diversion. But considering some of the subject matter here, you might hope for a comedy that can actually reach blackness, rather than barely achieving navy-blue. (SR)

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